Validation and connection
As I thought about a topic for this week, I asked for input from those around me and one person piped up “just talk about how awesome I am!” After a good laugh (because it was funny, not because they’re not awesome – they are), I decided to think about it a little more. As a mental health practitioner, I focus a lot on attachment and communication issues. This translates into doing a lot of looking at the underlying need, or things that may be communicated indirectly. I remind myself and others regularly that all behaviour is communication, you just have to take the time to truly see what’s being communicated.
Have you ever heard of the 5 Love Languages? It’s a tool that I really love because the focus is both positive and effective. Originally created to improve communication and connection in romantic relationships, the 5 Love Languages addresses ways that we give and receive love. Basically, how we communicate our love for one another and how we recognize when someone is showing us that we are loved. As the title suggests, there are 5 options: Words of Affirmation, Acts of Service, Receiving Gifts, Quality Time, and Physical Touch. If you’d like to find out what your love language is, go here to take a quick quiz. (Who doesn’t love a quiz, right? And parents - there's an option for children too!). You might be surprised with what you learn about yourself! There’s an apology language also, fyi, which can be really beneficial to understand as well. This tool has been so effective that it now has branched beyond couple’s issues and has options for children, teens, military members, workplace concerns, and more. Check out the book options in the resource list if you have time.
I digress though, the focus of this blog post isn’t really on the Love Languages, but I like them so much that I thought it was worth mentioning. Being able to connect with others in meaningful ways is such an important aspect of feeling validated and connected. So when someone says “tell them how awesome I am!”, I recognize the underlying communication as being a desire for validation. Sure, maybe it’s said in a joking way, but often times people use humour as a way to shield themselves from discomfort in life. And often times the core of that is rooted in very real, vulnerable feelings - whether people realize it or not. Sometimes, it's the little comments that matter quite a bit, because they provide the opportunity to connect. And then I got to thinking more and more, as I often do, and spent some time reflecting on how validation connects to self-esteem and how self-esteem connects to healthy attachment and how healthy attachment connects to effective communication and healthy relationships.
Humans have an innate desire to connect with each other, because anthropologically speaking that is a cornerstone of survival. But we not only survive with connection, we thrive with it. And that connection is built upon hundreds and thousands of reinforcing moments – both large and small – which either create or break the bonds between people. Positive connection is built upon moments of healthy validation (that healthy part is key though!) and meeting physical, emotional, spiritual, and psychological needs. So being able to recognize underlying communication and unspoken needs becomes a critical component to engagement and attachment. It's the framework for acceptance which upholds interpersonal relationships of all types and builds a foundation of trust.
Which brings us to this week’s exercise. Spend some time reflecting on how you and those closest to you feel connected, feel validated, and ways that you show and accept love. This might be trickier than it sounds, because people have all sorts of defenses. Sometimes, we aren’t even open to the feeling of vulnerability of assessing ourselves or others in this way. And other times, we may realize that how we’re communicating these things isn’t very effective and that can be disconcerting. But that’s ok! These are skills that can be learned and improved upon.
For starters, close your eyes and think of a time you felt really valued. Not just placated or receiving a kindness, but truly seen and respected in a way that made you feel wonderful. What was happening? Did someone pause what they were doing to give full attention to what you were saying? Were you complimented in a way that was genuine? Was it a time that you were cuddled or held? Whatever the memory is, spend a few moments sitting with it. Think about why you felt the way that you did, and what inside you shifted. Because when we make genuine connections, something inside shifts, even if only for a moment. And it is those tiny shifts that add up over time – when we are making healthy, positive connections those shifts help us bloom into the fullest version of ourselves, but when we make unhealthy or negative connections, those shifts take us farther away from our potential. So what are the things that help you to grow?
Once you identified a few interactions which have brought this response in you, think about those around you as well. When are the times that your child lights up with joy? What makes your spouse feel most appreciated? Is there something that’s guaranteed to make your best friend laugh every single time? What is a certain way to cheer them up when they are feeling really low? These are the moments where connection thrives - full of vulnerability, but also full of promise. Full of hope, because genuine connection says "I am here." And if you begin to intentionally focus on building more of these moments into life, you and those around you will start to thrive as well.
Consider starting up a conversation about this with those you care about. Spend a few moments communicating about needs and desires and see how you feel afterwards. Here are some starter questions to build connection:
When is a time that you have felt truly happy?
If you were your bravest self, what is something you would want to do?
What is the best way to make you feel appreciated?
How did someone really hurt you, and what made you feel comforted?
What situations make you most outraged and why?
When are you perfectly calm and at peace?
If you could change just one thing about life, what would it be?
What is the most valuable item you have, and why?
Who do you look up to, or who made a difference in your life?
Now, these are just a few questions to get a conversation started. You’ll probably find that you learn new and interesting things about each other, and the topic may flow more naturally as you keep talking. Be sure that your having this type of conversation with someone you trust though, because these types of discussions are key insights into who you are and how you “work”. Knowing this information is a gift that people who hold your best interests at heart will cherish, but those who are unscrupulous may use to cause emotional harm. Choose your vulnerable moments wisely so that both of you can grow from them.
Whether you choose to have direct conversations to improve connection, or just want to spend some time observing responses in yourself and others, make it a priority this week to really tune in to reactions. Often, the key to connection lies in the subtleties that may go unnoticed, so being intentional about shifting perspective can have a huge impact. You may find that there is a lot more going on than what is just seen on the surface. Body language, inflection, silence, facial expressions, tone, etc., can all communicate more than just what is being said. Allow yourself to be open to truly connecting with yourself and others through observation and conversation, and see where this leads you. Sometimes, it’s as simple as hearing someone half-joking about being awesome and taking a moment to reflect upon it and responding that yeah, I see you, and you are a pretty awesome person. That subtle shift might just bring great changes because where validation exists, connection thrives.